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Order and Chaos (part 1)

I think it takes a very different spirit to appreciate the fleeting nature of life, versus that with which so many of us may have been raised.

Navigating to a new store today, in an area with which I was unfamiliar, I spotted a sign that said, “Yummy Bowl: Mongolian stir-fry and sushi, coming soon”. I was reminded of the restaurant Genghis Grill, which was wonderful on our first visit, good on our second visit, and closed on our third attempt. That restaurant closed forever before we got to try it a third time. While disappointed then, I look back today and am grateful that we got to discover it at all.

Which leads me to my Zen wisdom of today. That experiences are what make us richer, and I can always use a reminder to be grateful for what I have, and what I have had, more than I should ever continue mourning anything that I have lost.

Recognizing and overcoming guilt and shame

I have heard a lot in my life about guilt and about shame. These two negative emotions have very different impacts on life and on behavior, and I want to share some of what I have learned, through study, self-reflection, careful thought, and the love of those closest to me. This is how I learned to identify them and put them behind me, and I hope it helps you to do the same, so you can take back your life and live it more fully.

Most simply, guilt is something you feel that makes you regret a previous behavior and want to make amends, and to do better next time, too. Shame is an ouroboros, feeding on itself, going nowhere, accomplishing nothing useful, and providing no help. It is not even fuel to be burned, like anger (properly managed) can be.

Shame ruins everything you allow it to touch; there is no upside to it. It causes self-destructive behavior built on denial and pain. Shame has no opposite to balance it out; the only thing I have found that can counter it at all is a combination of honesty and love. Honesty with yourself, harsh honesty if needed, to see what you really did that makes you feel this way. You may be surprised that it doesn’t hold up as you thought it did. This makes it easier to move on.

Of course, sometimes it truly is as bad as you feared, but when you admit that to yourself first, you take away most of its power at once. Denial is a heavy blanket that weighs you down everywhere you go; it keeps you from breathing properly, from acting effectively, and from seeing what is really around you, even right in front of your face. Allow yourself to stare that pain down and feel it for a moment, then allow yourself to step away without breaking eye contact.

Shame cannot survive being spoken. Fears, too, often lose their power when you can put a name to them and call them out.

Face up to your deepest fears, your worst shame, and you lift the blanket of denial. Like coming up for air, you will immediately feel lighter, even if the shock of that air and that brightness may overwhelm you at first. To carry this metaphor to fruition, this also lets you move freely again. It can feel very different, suddenly having the ability to reach out and say or do something that felt unattainable before. But when you do this, you immediately take back some of the power to help yourself and to change what you’ve brought to be.

After honesty comes love.

Part of shame’s power to imprison your mind and heart is that it wields fear like a physical weapon. Fear hurts, and you can shy away from its touch, even for years. Many have this ingrained in them. But I have only found two things that can beat back fear. One is courage: not the absence of fear, but the determination to act from knowing that something else is more important. Sometimes clear thinking can help you reach this point, when you realize something new, or when someone else helps open your eyes to a truth you had overlooked.

But even more powerful and more sweeping is love. Love can wash fear away like the surf of a rising tide. This does not always happen automatically. Sometimes you have to burn away the denial with that lens of honesty before you can find the love beneath it, for denial can hide even that, when you give it enough power over enough time. But love unveiled can be your strongest defense and your greatest tool.

Love for another can make you choose to risk your life, or to give up something valuable, if you can help them. It can help you to overcome your lifelong shyness or your fear of embarrassment to step up and say a kind word to someone in need, or to someone in pain. This can be the protective love of a parent for a child, or a friend for another, or the selfless love of anyone for a stranger. It is all the same power, and it can inspire awe and help you to master any fear you have, as long as you can feel it openly.

Honesty can help you to see someone you love who is hurting, and to recognize that your love can help that person. This person can be someone with whom you are close, or someone distant to whom you want to reach out, or a total stranger you encounter seemingly by chance. It can even be yourself. Be honest, first, and then allow yourself to love someone – someone else, or your own being. No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.

If you have lived with shame, you are almost certainly telling yourself lies. Maybe someone else put them there in the beginning, and whether you hear their voice in your head and your heart, or whether you hear your own, shame does nothing but erode everything you are that matters. It saps your energy, it keeps you cold and still and quiet, and it robs you of your very life, one inch and one drop at a time. It serves nothing but pain and fear.

Guilt over actions means you see that you can do better. THAT is a fueling emotion that you can use to reach out and help someone. Even yourself! If you committed some offense that no one has even discovered yet, but you feel guilty about it, you can make yourself feel better if you take action to make it right, and right now. If you wronged another, honesty and love are still your best tools to set things right again. Speak the truth with humility and show that person some love. No, it may not always be possible to make things truly right, but you only have a chance to do better if you take action.

Don’t wait. Do it now. Look inside, talk with someone you trust, or talk with yourself in the mirror. But be honest. Then be kind. Even if you think you don’t know kindness, then you already know everything else that hurts. Say something that you’ve never heard anyone say. See how it makes you feel. If it surprises you and lifts your heart, start with that. You may have just discovered kindness on your own. And when you share that with the world, honestly, you will quickly find that kindness attracts more kindness, and you will learn even faster how it feels, and how to cultivate it everywhere you can. Then you’re making yourself and your world a better place.

Every day.

Potluck Lunch Loophole

One week before our office’s Thanksgiving potluck lunch, I was getting a little desperate to find a recipe that no one else was making.

All of the usual fare had been covered already: dressing, sides, desserts, breads, even drinks were volunteered by my colleagues. Keeping a vegetarian or even vegan diet for the past decade, my choices for what to bring were limited by more than my lack of culinary skill. I wanted something interesting that everyone could enjoy, but that I could confidently craft in no more than three tries, lest I run out of time, first, and food with which to experiment as well.

Happily, while reading a new friend’s lifestyle blog on Saturday, I discovered a marvelous little recipe with the perfect loophole: Healthy No-Bake Apple Cinnamon Energy Bites. Since the actual cooking was bound to be the hardest part for my potluck contribution, skipping it altogether seemed like a wonderful way to begin! The ingredients seemed simple enough, if somewhat unusual, but they looked tasty, and my friend had posted a brief and entertaining video wherein she put them together, so the entire process seemed foolproof. Of course, I had not yet begun to look foolish in my kitchen, but I was game for the challenge and set out to find what I needed before the day was out.

The recipe, which is posted in full right here, called for chewy apple rings and agave syrup, among other more common items, and those took some looking. I found the cinnamon, vanilla, and blue agave syrup at a grocery store in town, and the dates and bulk apple rings at Sprouts Farmers Market, though I read that Trader Joe’s has good apple rings as well. Still, I overbought dramatically, since I needed room to go wrong a time or three before making enough to feed a dozen people, preferably without rationing too sparsely. Sprouts was definitely the best place to get the fruits I needed at reasonable prices.

Smartphone in hand, I read up a bit on oats right there in the grocery store, before deciding on old-fashioned rolled oats instead of the instant variety. It seems like instant would work just fine, but old-fashioned oats bring exactly the consistency you want to offset the softness of the sticky dates, and I highly recommend them.

After one cycle without the oats (um… to check the consistency, thank you, not because I didn’t realize I had skipped something… oh, shut up), and one more with everything in order, I started to get a feel for the process and the goal. A total of eleven cycles, from measuring, to food processor, to shaping by hand and chilling on parchment paper, produced what I was sure would be plenty of Apple Cinnamon Bites for everyone. Little did I know that I had underestimated my friend’s deceptively-simple recipe, and the quality ingredients I insisted on using for my first run at this new process. I came home from the potluck utterly bereft of Bites, and with one colleague patently asking for more the next time I made them. I was not the only one delighted with the results!

While there is no profound insight in this blog post, in keeping with my frequent theme of trying something new and expanding your horizons, I did make a discovery that charmed everyone around me and left a healthy dose of confidence in its wake, though not so much as a crumb on the empty dishes I brought home. Even a man with zero cooking skills, but with a fine formula and good food choices along the way, can strike gold, and so can you. Choose your next testing ground and set yourself up for success. Then go make a mess, and have some fun doing it! Wherever you land, you can be glad you took the leap.

Independence Day evolved

I don’t have PTSD from combat, and I still felt like I was in a war zone last night, with bombs exploding all around. I understand that the Star-Spangled Banner was inspired by and written during the overnight defense of Fort McHenry, but why do we celebrate our post-war freedom by simulating the violence of combat all over again?

To counter the risks of wildfires, people have developed drone-based LED light shows to replace firework shows, and this is an excellent development. Even a buzzing hum that may sound like a swarm of bees is replicating a natural phenomenon, and the lights are visible from a distance and can be used to make incredibly elaborate figures. These spectacular displays are vivid, harmless, and all electric, not even generating exhaust, much less the concussive noise and air pollution that result from explosive powder and burning paper over an area.

I know how much US citizens love their guns, and with the ferocious defense of the right to bear arms, I doubt that fireworks will be outlawed in this country anytime soon. However, for the physical safety of humans, animals, and plant life in the area, banning handheld packages of gunpowder just makes sense. Moreover, out of respect for veterans who have served their nation in active duty, we should refrain from allowing even private citizens to detonate these items for days before and after every holiday.

Humans and our technology are constantly evolving. Embrace the present and the future. Love life, be kind to nature, and love your neighbors, especially our armed forces, whether active, reserve, or retired.

Reflect more, but maybe not the way you expect

Want to do better? Check yourself out at different times!

A new study suggests that for many people, seeing one’s own reflection more often helps you to be the best version of yourself. The simple idea behind this theory is that when we physically see ourselves, we subconsciously compare who we perceive with who we want to be, making us aspire to be better people.

While everyone is obviously quite different, any insight can help you help yourself, right? Try it and see how it makes you feel, at least once the change settles into normalcy. Comment below and let me know what you learn about yourself!

Carpe Diem

This morning I heard “Chasing the Sun” by Sara Bareilles, one of my favorite musicians ever. In case you haven’t heard it yet, the song reminds us that life can be rich though fleeting, and that honoring those no longer with us should reinforce the value of our continuing lives. A universal message to be sure, but one too easy to overlook in the hustle of daily life. I’m not doing the song justice, of course. Find it here and listen for yourself: https://www.amazon.com/Chasing-The-Sun/dp/B00DRDSLNU

“Life’s a Song” by Mindy Braasch is another worthwhile listen, available (at least right now) as a free download from her website here: http://mindybraasch.com/

Take a moment to reflect on what you do each day that really matters. If you have trouble finding these answers, that’s okay, but you need this reflection even more. Life is far too short and too fragile to let it slip away without a fight. We’re not all taught that, but it is still true. Step up, step out, and live today as if it is all that matters. Tomorrow will come for most of us, if we’re lucky, but today is really all we have. It’s the most important day, and it means everything. Be grateful, and more than that, be aware. Look, listen, pay attention, and live.

Why Not Try?

I’m sure you noticed that this blog is new.

Until recently, I spent most of my life thinking of reasons NOT to do things, and boy, are there an endless supply of those, once you start looking! I don’t know why I did that, other than simple fear of failure or of success. Yes, success! (“What would I do if I failed at this? Admit I’m worthless? Never try anything new again?”) If you HAVE these conversations with yourself, it can be so much easier to get around the unspoken fears that hold you back from the shadows of your mind; put a name to them, and you remove their teeth (another blog post will focus entirely on this subject). Or, might I simply say, “That didn’t go as well as I hoped, but I liked trying, or didn’t. Maybe I’ll try again, or try something different next time.”

Also ask yourself, “What if I try something and it works well? What if I succeed? Will people look to me for guidance or inspiration or even just with admiration? What is wrong with that? What if I don’t like the attention? And do I have to keep doing this forever once I find I’m good at it or I like it today?” Of course not! Start these conversations with yourself and remove the fear of uncertainty. Then you’re simply trying something new, and new experiences can turn out good, bad, or everywhere in between. You literally never know until you actually try it.

Think about it. Read about it. Plan something. Try something. Risk a little or risk nothing, learn how it goes, and learn how you feel. Once you know better, do better. Or move on if you don’t want to do better at that. But either way, be honest with yourself and open to whatever you are trying. Join me in starting something of your own. What do you want to try next?

Thoughts on Friday the 13th

I have long considered this date to be irrelevant in the grand scheme of life, but that doesn’t keep me from recognizing it.

Like so many people who believe themselves to be intelligent and discerning, I am keenly aware that just because I may feel a certain way, that does not put me into the majority by any means. If most people in this country believe that Friday the 13th is an unlucky day, then it bears paying attention. In the same way, if most people think that there is something in the road along which I am driving, whether I think so or not, I would be wise to pay attention to their behavior in case they swerve around the spot, obstacle or no!

It is interesting that there is no consensus of any particular origin of the superstition, though several theories have sprung up over the past couple of centuries. Christians say that Jesus was crucified on a Friday, and history suggests that the Romans conducted all executions on Friday; they also add that Judas was the 13th guest at the Last Supper. The Norse god Loki was said to be the 13th (unwanted) guest at a meal in Valhalla attended by 12 other gods; Loki, god of mischief, tricked one of Odin’s sons into destroying his brother during the visit, and the mourning over such a great loss fueled the superstition for ages to come.

Curiously as well, people in the United States view Friday the 13th as unlucky, but Italians see Friday the 17th in the same light, while Greek people and Spanish-speaking cultures hold Tuesday the 13th to be the unluckiest day in general. Some literature backs up many of these modern ideas, but the histories have a pretty wide range of origins, too. The Dutch have even noted that fires, theft, and traffic accidents in the Netherlands tend to be lower on Friday the 13th, since people tend to be more careful on this day; some even stay home as a precaution. And Finland promotes the National Accident Day to raise awareness of automotive safety. The scheduled date for this each year? Always on a Friday the 13th (which does occur at least once and often more in every calendar year).

Looking around at traditions and group psychology, it is easy to see why millions of people believe that there is an unlucky day like this, whether the proof is there or not. But my favorite perspective is one that a colleague told me just this morning: how can it be unlucky when you’re about to enjoy a weekend off of work? So have a nice weekend, everyone, whatever your plans. And if you have to work on Saturday, remember that everyone else will be grateful to have made it past Friday the 13th, and share a few smiles with them over that.

Reflections on the flu

My wife is currently suffering through the worst flu she can remember for more than 20 years. While I would like to help more, there is little to do beyond getting what food and sleep I can to try to stay healthy, and she is in the worst of it tonight and cannot sleep at all. Awake, or troubled by dreams in fitful sleep, it is hard for me to focus on anything else.

Tonight I learned that influenza is an especially tricky virus to fend off because it mutates regularly, and there have been at least 24 varieties observed by modern scientists.1 Some viruses and bacteria might change over time, but the flu virus seems to do this every year now, making antibodies obsolete when a new strain invades. Worse, the 15 versions of H and 9 versions of N can combine into a multitude of unique variations, although the body seems to recognize them primarily by those two proteins, so perhaps 24 is the greatest number that humans must face (at once!) for now.

We have all heard for years that nothing can treat a virus except time and a natural immune response, but there is now a trio of antiviral treatments that all seem to function in the same manner as one another. Zanamivir (commonly called Relenza)2, Oseltamivir (known as Tamiflu)3, and Peramivir (trade name Rapivab)4 all inhibit the chemical action of neuraminidase, an enzyme the viruses produce to enable them to escape from infected cells and spread into healthy cells. As inhibitors, they do not attack the virus directly and do little against a full-blown infection. But taken very early after exposure, they can help to limit the virus’s activity and thus shorten the time required for the immune system to eliminate it from the body.

As any informed shopper knows these days, overuse of antibiotics (which only work against bacteria) can allow resistant strains to rise when their competitors are pushed back. These antivirals can be overused in the same way, blocking some of the flu viruses and allowing any new mutation to spread like wildfire. Even this limited line of defense can quickly fall apart if it is abused. A healthy immune system really is the best defense against the flu, and not everyone has that anymore. Still, people are working on solutions.5 6 7 Please share any more that you find in the comments below!

 

References / further reading:

  1. Book: “Gasping For Air” by Kevin Glynn, MD; published 8/3/2017 by Rowman & Littlefield
  2. Zanamivir: https://www.medicinenet.com/zanamivir/article.htm#what_is_zanamivir_and_how_does_it_work_mechanism_of_action
  3. Oseltamivir: http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/tamiflu/how_work.htm
  4. Peramivir: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peramivir
  5. Urumin is effective against strains of the virus that resist the three antivirals above. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urumin
  6. Scytovirin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scytovirin must be cultivated from bacteria at present but is topically protective against flu virus and HIV, among other deadly pathogens.
  7. One promising step toward a universal flu vaccine was announced in 2010 http://mbio.asm.org/content/1/1/e00018-10.abstract and seems to have begun development by several more teams.

Soldiers as Guardians… and more importantly, as Humans

Soldiers are celebrated as heroes, as well they should be, putting their lives on the line to defend what they believe in. But problems arise when people can no longer believe in anything real. Artificial borders, political affiliations, religious zealotry… these are ideas that are meant to divide humans from each other, and they do so quite effectively.

I heard something tonight that got me thinking more than ever about this issue. Whether fictional or not, the very concept of a “NQK” (No Questions Kill) mission is troublesome on the face of it. The supremely destructive act of taking a life, while sometimes necessary for the greater good, should never be undertaken lightly, nor blindly. Well-trained soldiers with understanding from an informed populace make the BEST soldiers, because they understand the reasons behind their orders, and so can follow them with conviction when right, or know to question them when wrong.

The problem with “blind loyalty” is right there in the name: it is BLIND. And of course, “there is none so blind as one who will not see.” If someone refuses to consider new ideas, that person has stopped learning and indeed has stopped thinking. Confirmation bias is a widely-known psychological phenomenon to which no one is immune; the only way to avoid it is by constantly questioning one’s own reasoning and conclusions. Sound reasoning can stand up to this. However, rationalizing what we already want to believe is no way to live, and it is the antithesis of truth.

Regarding leadership, some people have been shown to thrive with firm guidance, but most people can do so much more with encouragement, education, and opportunity than with slavish obedience. There are people who are so scarred, mentally and emotionally, that they need structure imposed upon them to function at all, but “breaking” people so they can become better at following orders still requires BREAKING in the first place. If breaking the spirit of horses is innately cruel (since they have a right to life), then breaking the spirit of humans is just as cruel (since they have a right to life, too). There is no difference unless we close our eyes and cry dogma, and that difference is artificial and deadly to all life.

With compartmentalized knowledge and secret missions, police become simple tools of the person or group in power, and military soldiers become no more than pawns in power struggles, and not the guardians of their people that they should be. Even our so-called National Guard simply protects financial interests in other countries much of the time. Soldiers should be entrusted with the protection of their people, and the full understanding of what and whom they are protecting, and why.

People with strong tendencies are easy to steer. This is not necessarily the same as passion. Passion for something is a choice you make, something you are happy to pursue. Drives, however, can compel you to take actions, good or bad. These can stem from healthy convictions or from poorly-understood emotional obsessions. The detective who never misses a clue at the crime scene may still feel compulsions that capture his attention in daily life, even to the point of letting him walk right into danger unawares. The officer or agent who remains cool in the face of most criminal activity may still lose his self-control in the presence of someone who did what was done to him in his youth. If it made him feel powerless and victimized years ago, he may overreact to the newest villain and even lose sight of his training, perhaps even compromising the prosecution against the new monster before him. Mature children of manipulative parents who outgrow the oppressive grip under which they were raised, still may find the old reactions coming back years later, even after just a phone call with a parent or someone who reminds them of that time.

All of this speaks to why blind obedience is just as dangerous for soldiers and the people they would protect, because blind followers can be used like tools if you know how to grip their handles; sailed like winds on the sea if you know which direction they blow and how to tack. Rich metaphors for certain, but the same is true for those who train people too narrowly.

Soldiers who are best suited to protect themselves, their families, and their homelands, are well-rounded, intelligent people who understand their own psychology as well as that of their opponents. Enemies of humanity abound, but they can only climb to power and work from within if they first train their guardians not to look inward. True heroes may or may not be patriots, but if you believe that this is the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, then the Free and the Brave must be free to question their leaders and brave enough to do so. Everyone is wrong sometimes. The wisest among us understand this, value honest feedback, admit our own mistakes and learn from them, to grow wiser and stronger over time. This is true leadership. The stubborn and the strong may defeat a person, a group, or a nation, but they will never be handed victory without a fight by anyone who knows who they are but questions everything honestly, to ensure that they stay true.

Any path through the chaos of life is never easy, and we must always remain vigilant to know upon what ground we stand, and which way we are facing as we move across each terrain that we encounter. Stop and rest, recover your strength, look inward at yourself and at those around you, and you will see which way to go after a time. Life is like travel by foot. Sometimes there will be fog all around; sometimes visibility is clear for miles. Sometimes everything seems uphill, but there is always a balance to that if you just keep going. I read once, “If you’re going through hell… KEEP GOING!” Anywhere you stop and give up, you will remain. Even if you settle in a fertile valley by a river, if you do not pay attention and tend to the land around you, you will stagnate and start to decay.

Only through challenge can we grow stronger. The person whose injuries are healing but who will not test his muscles because they still hurt, will lose what muscle he had, and will continue to weaken. The person who never pushes the boundaries never learns what she can do. The child who never encounters bacteria or dirt may never develop the immunity to carry him through the dangers of adult life. The adult who stops questioning her values stops understanding them and shrivels into a creature of blind habit. The elder whose habits and traditions have never been challenged collapses upon himself and may wonder one day what all he has missed by never looking the other way. Or he may never wonder at all, and lose even the benefits of hindsight and the wisdom of reflection.

Struggle, in modest doses, makes us stronger. It makes us wiser, as we learn where we thrive as well as what always hurts more than it helps. It broadens our horizons whenever we take up something new, even for a day, a year, a decade. Exercise your body when and where you can. Be careful, but take risks. Push a little every chance you get, then reflect on how it made you feel. Even fear cannot rule us when we understand it and call it by name. Everything you learn makes you stronger. Insight is a tool at least as powerful as a strong back. Experience opens more doors than you can count. “New” may be daunting, but growth can be inspiring. The endorphins people talk about when they exercise are from pushing themselves in the right ways and the right amounts. People can feel the same invigorating release of energy from mental accomplishments and emotional milestones.

Work. Push. Think. Learn. Reflect. Discuss. Understand. Find peace in motion and growth in sharing, whether you connect with other people or with everything else around you even while seemingly alone. There is always something. No part of this planet is truly empty. And if you are there, it can be a rich place indeed.